Four Little Letters, 2 & 3rd John, Philemon and Jude

Section 1. Four Little Letters  (in the New Testament)

The four smallest  letters in the New Testament are easily overlooked, rarely preached on, referred to or even studied.  But each of them has a unique role, a special flavor, and even serious practical applications for our lives today.  

My aim is to remind you of the useful information that can be found only here, and nowhere else. 

3rd John

3rd John is the shortest book in the Bible.  Depending on your English translation, it has about 219 words. You should be able to read in in about 1 minute. 

John states that Demetrius has been endorsed by “the truth itself.”  I am not aware of any such language appearing elsewhere, and do not pretend to understand John’s point.  Speculation might point to Demetrius being effective as an evangelist and teacher, and the evidence seen in the lives of his converts as this endorsement, since it is the result of the operation of the truth.  

John wrote this letter to a man named Gaius. It is possible that an extra-biblical reference places him in Ephesus around 80 AD.  This is a critical piece information for the discussion of the story of the church of Ephesus and the dating of the writings of John.

There was also a villain in this story. His name was Diotrephes. He does not matter, but John’s reasons for opposing him sounds very modern.  Diotrephes was a tyrannical local pastor. He rejects John’s teachings and was opposed to John’s influence over the church at Ephesus. He desired to be the sole leader, and he slandered John and others to get his way. He even opposed some of the missionary minded men, and interfered with their supporters.  Notice that this wicked man might be the first person in history to be known for “ex-communicating” someone.  And he justified kicking people out of the local fellowship on the ground that they were supporting missionaries that he did not approve.  He really just anted control of the money. Sound familiar?

These three issues do not touch our lives directly, but there is one more, and it definitely relates to us all. John compliments Gaius for supporting those early missionaries. We are told that they left the comfort of the local home church to promote the Name of Jesus, and that they refused assistance of any kind from the Gentiles.  John specifically challenges all of us to “support such men.”  But there is a mystery here. It looks to me as if these evangelists were Christians of Jewish birth, who were sent to the Gentiles with the Gospel, and that not receiving money or any other kind of assistance from them was a matter of principle.  They did not want anyone to have any ground to accuse them of any form of corruption or greed.  Maybe their true faith towards God in the area of finances is what Diotrephes hated them for.  Reminds me of Judas’ opposition to the use of perfume to anoint Jesus, so he could get a cut of the profits.

We might benefit  from considering the financial issues of the local church in the context of 3rd John.

2nd John

2nd John is the second shortest book in the Bible, only 245 words. Again, it barely takes a minute to read it. 

There is a long standing debate concerning the person John is addressing.  The Chosen Lady?  Who is she, and how is it that “all who know the truth” love her?  Is she Mary, the mother of Jesus? Is she the church as a whole? The arguments are unending, and not very productive, but the subject does matter.  If Mary was still alive at the time of this writing, then there are problems dating the contents. But I find none of the other positions satisfactory either. If this Chosen Lady was Mary, mother of Jesus, then we have a unique situation, which affects the interpretation of the whole letter.

The word “antichrist” only appears in the Bible here and in 1st John. He does not use it in the book of Revelation. Since his readers are assumed to understand what he is referring to, it is seen as evidence that the book of Revelation is already in existence, or at least that the information concerning the Beast and the False prophet was well known.  But this is not possible if Mary is the intended recipient of this letter, unless the Revelation came into existence much earlier than is believed.

John uses the term “antichrist” in a general way here to refer to the Gnostics. These were believers who had pagan backgrounds and were teaching that Jesus was purely spiritual and that He did not have a physical body. John uses the unique phrase “anyone who goes too far…”  to describe the process  and the condition of a believer whose interest in this idea leads them away from the historical nature of the incarnation.  The origin of the Gnostics is unclear, and some think Gnosticism could not have become a strong movement during the life time of Mary. 

I am interested in why John is writing about such things to a woman. 

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of 2nd John is the admonition to reject fellowship with a Christian gnostic. He specifically says do not even greet them.  That really sounds harsh, but John must have had a clear reason. He also said “the one who gives him a greeting participates in his evil deeds.”  This concept is easy to abuse, and those who apply it wrongly have done much harm to the faith.  But it deserves further study, and we must be careful how we implement it. 

What if the future Antichrist, does have gnostic ideas? Would we recognize them? I am specifically interested to see if Islamic Shiism shows some gnostic influence.  The term “anti”  is usually thought of today as being opposed to or hostile toward, but I think it also includes the idea of replacement.  From this perspective, the antichrist is someone who is promoting an alternate Jesus, while opposing the Biblical Jesus. This is certainly something that Islam has always done. Compare the Islamic Jesus, Issi, who did not die on the cross and is not God’s Son. Like the gnostics John opposed, they reject the “teaching of Christ” and “go too far.”  

This little letter is quite intense. Something very serious is going on. John is very concerned that this Chosen Lady and her children do not even give a greeting to any gnostic who approaches them.  He wants her to be protected from them.  Because of the need to date this book long after the assumed death of Mary, not much else is really open to discussion. However, if by some strange twist of reality, this book is written to Mary, then there is a unique issue to consider. The gnostics might have realized that if Mary could be convinced to say that she gave birth to a spirit and not a flesh and blood baby, they would have won the war before it really got started.  As strange as that seems, it would give a meaningful context to this letter, and would make all of it more comprehendible. 


Philemon is 3rd smallest book in the Bible, only 335 words long. Less than 2 minutes to read. 

The subject of Philemon is it’s most enduring and unique feature. Paul had led Philemon to Christ. Then he led a slave named Onesimus to Christ. Onesimus had been Philemon’s slave.  He was possibly a runaway.  And now Paul is sending Onesimus back to Philemon. This letter is Paul’s endorsement of Onesimus and Paul’s gracious promise to accept financial responsibility for any debt Onesimus has incurred.  While this is stunning by itself, it is even more so when we remember that Paul spent most of his ministry close to poverty and homelessness. 

Paul’s confidence in both men is stunning.  He expects the former slave and master to now face each other as brothers in Christ, and do so with mutual respect and brotherly love. This is fantastic, and unimaginable in the culture of the day.  And Paul expects to see both of them soon. He invites himself to be a guest a Philemon’s home, as soon as he gets out of prison! 

There are two concepts which make a rare appearance in this letter.

Paul carefully clarifies his intent to avoid putting Philemon under compulsion. Paul is strongly encouraging Philemon (and us) to be careful that when we do someone a “favor” it is voluntary and not calculated or forced.  The application is obvious. When believers do things for each other, we must not allow ourselves to feel coerced. We need to examine our own hearts and give spontaneously, with true freedom and without grudging.

Finally, Paul connects ongoing personal evangelistic activity with insight into the blessings we have in Christ. So, if we don’t do any evangelism, our understanding of Christ’s benefit to us is hindered. There is application for us here.  The spiritual blessings we have in Christ are more obvious and meaningful when we are experiencing them in the context of true ministry, especially the ministry of teaching prospective believers about Jesus.    


Jude is the longest of the “four little letters” yet its 461 words  can easily be printed on a single page. You should be able to read it in 3 minutes. 

The book of Jude stands out for its unique use of extra-Biblical material. Apart from that subject very little is unique. It has so much in common with the book of 2nd Peter that scholars debate which one is dependent on the other.  But, let’s start with the simpler aspects of the book which are rare or even unique. 

This is the only place where an act of Christian fellowship is described as a “love feast.”  It really does sound like some kind of church banquet or buffet, maybe even a “pot luck” dinner”!  But there isn’t really anything else we can say about it.

Jude exhorts all to “build yourselves up in your most holy faith.”    This phrase “build yourselves up” looks a lot like self-effort, and as such will not get much attention. But, what if it is? We are to take up our cross daily, and numerous such tasks are assigned to us, so, why should we not consciously and intentionally work to build up ourselves in the context of the true faith?  Just do it! Maybe John Wesley was right, there are methods that you can apply to your own life that will help you move in the direction of holiness and a life of faith. Jude doesn’t even explain it. He assumes that the readers will have a clear idea what he means. And he says that they are to do so in the context of moral and spiritual decline that precedes Christ’s return.  So, step one is: don’t be like those scoffers whose coming and destruction was foretold.

Jude uses unusual language when describing our evangelistic efforts. He says we are to “snatch them from the fire”   We are to have mercy on some, yet do so with fear (for ourselves) lest we become like them.  Jude is so focused on this that he says when we are sharing our faith with doubters, we must hate everything that is related to corrupted carnal things. This is rather simple, and can easily become a pretext for isolationist attitudes. But Jude wants us engaged, just careful. He specifically charges us to take an attack posture, to “contend for the faith.”   This is different from the normal historical Christian apologetics which is mostly defensive in posture. Jude wants a polemical approach. The best defense is a strong offense!  Apologetics, a scholarly defense of the Gospel, is alive and well in the 21st  century.  It might take a little getting used to the idea of Christians on the offensive side of a public debate.

Verse 3 and 17 both seem to place the Apostles in past tense. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they have died out, but they might now be few and far between. Jude is saying that the faith he wants to protect  is that which was taught by the Apostles, which included Jude’s brother James, who is assumed to still be alive. That would put Jude’s letter in the 60’s at the latest.

The rest of the unique features in Jude’s letter relate to his use of the extra-Bibilcal book of Enoch and possibly another unknown source.  It won’t help us to debate the historical origins of this material, its relationship to the Bible, or even its actual content. What will help us is to diagnose Jude’s description of the false Christians who were invading the Church, which may have something in common with the warnings in 2nd John.   

The church family was being infiltrated by men who:

1.   Did not fear God

2.   Perverted the gospel of God’s grace in license for immorality. (See Paul in Romans 6) 

3.   Deny some of the basic truths about Jesus and His teaching.

4.   Are dreamers.

5.   Pollute their own bodies (drug abusers?)     

6.   Reject authority (especially spiritual authority)                

7.   Slander spiritual beings

8.   Speak abusively against anything they don’t understand.

9.   Act on instinct, without careful reasons for their actions.

10. Rush to make a profit

11. Mingle freely and comfortably with believers at Christian social events. 

12. Make feeding themselves the priority.

13. Are proud of things that they should be ashamed of.

14. Wander aimlessly

15. Grumble and find fault habitually

16. Brag and seek to satisfy their own evil desires

17. Use flattery to get what they want.

18. Divide or polarize believers into factions

19. Follow physical instincts and do not have the Holy Spirit

20. Have doubts.

So, Jude is telling us that this was already happening, it was spreading throughout the early church, and that it was urgent that the leaders get ahead of this, take pro-active steps, and stop things like this before they even get started. 

It is unlikely that any one church today will face all of these at one time, but people who manifest different aspects of these behaviors will join churches and then the trouble starts.

So, even though Jude is a small and difficult book to comprehend, his message is badly needed in the Church today.  Christian leaders must be on the offensive to preserve the Gospel, and protect the local churches from people who resemble these wicked infiltrators.